While American Horror Story: Hotel has put a fresh spin on immortality this season, the quest for eternal life still eludes us. Don’t tell that to the Russians as the Former Soviet Union seems even more fixated on preserving the dead than the ancient Egyptians. No judgment (well maybe a little) but the things that went on behind the “Iron Curtain” make me wonder if those long winters put common sense in a deep freeze.
Case and point… Modern embalming techniques vary, but bodies usually have a shelf life of approximately 10 years. Contrast that with the mortal remains of Vladimir Lenin, which were apparently looking pretty good when they turned 145 this year. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the Center for Scientific Research and Teaching Methods in Biochemical Technologies in Moscow — or the “Lenin Lab” for short — the Soviet founder’s corpse still maintains the look, feel, and flexibility of Lenin toward the end of his life. If anything, like a fine wine, the body’s appearance has improved with age.
The determination to preserve the former communist leader grew out of the work of anatomist Vladimir Vorobiev and biochemist Boris Zbarsky, who, after two months of robust political debate, were given the “go” to experiment on Lenin’s corpse beginning March of 1924. (Thankfully, it was a cold winter, and Lenin, whose brain and organs were removed during initial autopsy, didn’t decompose too much in the intervening weeks.) “No one was certain whether the experiment would succeed and, if it did, how long the body could be displayed after that,” writes Alexei Yurchak, a professor of social anthropology at UC Berkeley. “The plan was to attempt to preserve it for as long as possible.”
The gamble was a resounding success. In what Yurchak describes as “a dynamic method of preservation,” Lenin is reembalmed every year; his body is submersed in a delightful blend of preservatives and antimicrobial solutions, including glycerol, formaldehyde, hydrogen peroxide, and acetic acid. When the corpse is wheeled out for its annual public appearance, it’s covered in a rubber suit that keeps a thin layer of embalming fluid trapped against the skin. (A regular suit of clothes fits overtop.)
As new challenges have arisen, Russian scientists have innovated/renovated the body, “substituting original organic materials with artificial ones, and regularly redecorating [Lenin’s] shapes and surfaces.” Lenin’s eyelashes were replaced with fake ones long ago, and artificial skin patches now cover much of his body.
Today, the corpse might be seen as more a sculpture than anything else — one that grew out of the body itself. Like any work of art, Lenin’s “maintenance” is driven by aesthetic criteria but the big question is will he match my drapes and sofa?
Note: Thanks to M Stone for the inspiration